Folktales of the Jews - Vol. 1

Folktales of the Jews - Vol. 1

Folktales of the Jews - Vol. 1

Folktales of the Jews - Vol. 1


Thanks to these generous donors for making the publication of the books in this series possible: Lloyd E. Cotsen; The Maurice Amado Foundation; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion begins the most important collection of Jewish folktales ever published. It is the first volume in Folktales of the Jews, the five-volume series to be released over the next several years, in the tradition of Louis Ginzberg's classic, Legends of the Jews.

The 71 tales here and the others in this series have been selected from the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA), named in Honor of Dov Noy, at The University of Haifa, a treasure house of Jewish lore that has remained largely unavailable to the entire world until now. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the IFA has collected more than 20,000 tales from newly arrived immigrants, long-lost stories shared by their families from around the world. The tales come from the major ethno-linguistic communities of the Jewish world and are representative of a wide variety of subjects and motifs, especially rich in Jewish content and context. Each of the tales is accompanied by in-depth commentary that explains the tale's cultural, historical, and literary background and its similarity to other tales in the IFA collection, and extensive scholarly notes. There is also an introduction that describes the Sephardic culture and its folk narrative tradition, a world map of the areas covered, illustrations, biographies of the collectors and narrators, tale type and motif indexes, a subject index, and a comprehensive bibliography. Until the establishment of the IFA, we had had only limited access to the wide range of Jewish folk narratives. Even in Israel, the gathering place of the most wide-ranging cross-section of world Jewry, these folktales have remained largely unknown. Many of the communities no longer exist as cohesive societies in their representative lands; the Holocaust, migration, and changes in living styles have made the continuation of these tales impossible. This volume and the others to come will be monuments to a rich but vanishing oral tradition.


I first met Dov Noy in a book—more precisely, in an endnote.

I was putting together a collection of Jewish folktales, browsing through hundreds of stories collected in dozens of anthologies and primary sources. Early on in my research, I came across a bibliographic reference containing a baffling acronym—IFA—followed by a number. Then I encountered it again in the next endnote, and the next, and the one after that. In fact, it popped up repeatedly in most of the newer anthologies of Jewish folktales that I consulted. When I delved deeper I learned that “IFA” stood for the Israel Folktale Archives, which is the most extensive collection of Jewish oral tales in the world. I also discovered that one man was responsible for this unique treasure trove—Dov Noy.

In time I met Jewish storytellers who had mined the IFA for their books. I heard them recite these tales aloud, putting their own special “spin” on them. And I listened to their personal stories about meeting Dov Noy. It became increasingly clear to me that this Israeli professor was an unsung Jewish hero, whose efforts had contributed significantly to safeguarding a Jewish literary legacy no less precious than the holy books revered for centuries by the Jewish people. The only difference was that such oral tales rarely made it into print, so they had not caught the attention of the scholars. Until recent times, these tales had been carried around in the pekels, saddlebags and aprons of amcha, the Jewish rank-and-file, as they shlepped across five continents during their 2000-year exile. And because the transmitters of these oral texts were only simple folk, not venerated rabbis or community leaders, their tales had slipped beneath the radar of “the Tradition.” They were not taught in yeshivahs or religious schools, recited around the Sabbath table or on the pulpit, not disseminated in beautifully printed seforim, or prayerbooks, or even in popular haggadot. Unlike the universal currency of normative Judaism, these tales were strictly local coinage, eagerly passed around among Jewish tradespeople, laborers, shopkeepers, and beggars, old and young, literate and unlettered, in the marketplace, at family celebrations, at home and in coffeeshops. Remarkably, Dov Noy had understood all this when he was only a graduate student of folklore at Indiana University, and he had proceeded to devote his life to rescuing Jewish folktales before they vanished. The first step he took in accomplishing this mission was to found the Israel Folktale Archives at the University of Haifa in 1955. Today that archive bears his name.

I finally had the chance to meet Dov when I attended my first Jerusalem International Book Fair in 1991 as the newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Jewish Publication Society. Some of my storyteller friends had told me about Dov Noy’s “Monday nights,” weekly gatherings in his fourth-floor walk-up apartment that had been going on for decades. Anyone who was in town was welcome to come, these friends assured me, provided that they had some story to . . .

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